Yanukovych's Fall: The Power of Ukraine's Billionaires

By Christian Neef  in Kiev

Part 2: 'Hard to Believe'

In the last parliamentary elections, Akhmatov filled roughly 60 spots on the Party of Regions list with his people while Firtash chose 30. That is how politics in Ukraine is done: Whereas Putin took power away from the oligarchs in Russia, they are still at the controls in Ukraine.

The pair came to the conclusion well before the current crisis that Yanukovych would not be around for much longer. They began carefully looking around for alternatives. Akhmetov, for example, had always gotten along well with Tymoshenko, in contrast with Firtash, and began supporting Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who took over the leadership of her Fatherland alliance when she was incarcerated. Firtash, for his part, backed Vitali Klitschko's party UDAR.

"In reality, Firtash early on placed people in Klitschko's UDAR Party, a former head of secret service, for example," says Vadim Karasev. "The contacts were made via the head of the presidential office."

"It may sound hard to believe," Karasev says, "but Firtash was looking for an alternative for the eventuality that Tymoshenko was released and claimed the right to the presidency. It would have been advantageous were Klitschko already there, as a puppet of Firtash."

That's how Akhmetov and Firtash built up options for a possible future without Yanukovych. When the protests broke out on Independence Square in November and both oligarchs saw how obstinately Yanukovych reacted, they began to distance themselves. It was clear to both of them that if worse comes to worst, and the West imposed sanctions on Ukraine, their businesses would be the first to be affected.

Akhmetov made it known that he was in favor of negotiations between the government and the opposition. Firtash also quickly called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, emphasizing that people on both sides of the barricades were Ukrainians.

Letting Yanukovych Fall

Last Tuesday's bloody conflicts tipped the scales. On Wednesday both Akhmetov's and Firtash's TV stations changed their coverage of Independence Square: Suddenly the two channels, Ukraina and Inter, were reporting objectively on the opposition. The message of the oligarchs was clear: We're letting Yanukovych fall.

And in parliament -- where the majority party had barely budged a millimeter in the past weeks -- the mood suddenly changed: Suddenly they were looking for a compromise after all. It became clear on Thursday what this would mean: the forming of a broad coalition, the return of the old constitution and, with it, a reduction of the presidential powers as well as an accelerated presidential election.

Friday was a cheerful day, with bright blue skies. There was still sporadic gunfire but on Independence Square it was hard to believe that, just a few days earlier, people had been gunned down there.

Shortly after noon Yanukovych addressed the people as though he were still calling the shots. He declared that he would "initiate" new elections, constitutional reform and the formation of a new government with national support. Then, things began moving very fast. On Friday evening, parliament got back its full former powers, dismissed the hated interior minister and ultimately Yanukovych himself and smoothed the way for the release of Yulia Tymoshenko.

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1. Tymoshenko
ronald_thomas_west 02/25/2014
No mention of Yulia Tymoshenko is an oligarch in her own right ... or that she is a deeply divisive figure in Ukraine with a reputation as that nation's most corrupt leader in modern Ukrainian history. Spiegel would have us believe it was a Yanukovych turncoat arranged Tymoshenko's freedom but this is simplistic. Pleasing the Western democracies leaders who've called for her release in chorus over the years, those same leaders who've fanned the flames which erupted in Ukraine deposing a fairly elected government, is more the likely driving force. Western democracies x oligarchs = regime change is the more accurate equation
2. Letting apart literature.
van_lep 02/25/2014
Thanks for this absorbing thriller. Now some fact and data the European press always neglects. Ukraine situation is very complex and can't be reduce to a story of well and evil. The story of oligarchs coming from nothing is typical of Ukraina. And is typical also of the Timošenko entourage. She lost the presidential election that Janukovič won. These elections were monitored by OCDE which declared them as fair. So Mr. Janukovič is apparently a “dictator-elected”. 30% of Ukraine citizens, neglecting those of the autonomous republics like Crimea, are Russians. They speaks Russian, not Ukrainian, and feel themselves as being Russians. There is an historical division and even hate by Ukrainians against Russia and their Russian co-citizens. This is the main story of the Ukraine clashes. In the new situation after the intervention of USA, EU and Russia, which brought to new laws to reinforce Parliament power, and to new elections, the Parliament has proclaimed Ukrainian as the sole official language, when every region was allowed before to retain its own language instead. Which can hardly be seen as a “democratic” move. “Europe” is considered by the nationalist Ukrainian forces only as a mean to be used against Russia. Amid these forces there are nazist and anti-semitic ones, like Svoboda, which had in the past 30% of suffrages, and whose armed militias have been dismantled. Mrs. Timošenko has some Jewish in her family. The country is at bankruptcy, needs a huge financial aid, and economic partnership. And it is very likely going toward further internal clashes, even fragmentation. Is it there someone who want take care of that? Germany? UE? …
3. Kasarev
spon-facebook-666463326 02/25/2014
""If Yanukovych had attempted to solve the crisis with violence, he would have lost, but the oligarchs would have too," Karasev says. "Tymoshenko would have replaced him immediately and then we would have seen a repeat of what happened after the Orange Revolution: the dispossession of the rich." Who does he think he's kidding? The people wanted Tymoshenka out of jail because she was put there on trumped up charges. But very few people want her in Power. She's just another oligarch with much baggage. This is just rubbish, self-serving "analysis".
4. Thank you
grisch 02/26/2014
for an eyeopening article on ukrainian politics and its latest developments
5. What is going on at Der Spiegel?
senzen 02/27/2014
"Whereas Putin took power away from the oligarchs in Russia, they are still at the controls in Ukraine". Oh yeah, good old Putin vanquishing the bad oligarchs - not being one himself of course. "Klitschko already there, as a puppet of Firtash." More russian style innuendo. So these oligarchs covered their bets, big deal, they remain part of the problem.
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